What is a Deacon?

Baptist Deacons, Episcopal Deacons, Catholic Deacons, Demon Deacons, oh, and don’t forget Deaconesses, the iterations on the Church’s understanding of the concept of “Deacon” seem almost endless. So, inspired, I’m sure, by my exploration of the legacy of Emily Cooper, Deaconess and Saint (more, HERE), I’ve been getting a number of questions about Deacons.

So, here’s the scoop.

A deacon is a type of minister in the church. Along with “apostle” it is the only type of minister mentioned specifically by either Paul or the writers of the Gospels. Deacons are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a group of seven, Greek-speaking, members of the community in Jerusalem who are raised up by the apostles (original disciples of Jesus) and given the responsibility of seeing that the distribution of common goods is done equitably.

Two of the original seven deacons, Philip and Stephen figure prominently in the story of Acts of the Apostles, and the other five are identified by name, but apart from that, little is known about the work and responsibility of early deacons, whether any more where ever named or how communities founded by Christians other than the original apostles came to have deacons as well.

What we do know is that by the age of the great persecutions of the Church, Deacons appear as a formal “order” of ministry alongside bishops (overseers and heirs of the apostles) and priests (presbyters or elders). Again, though the lives and deaths of many deacons figure prominently in the church history of this age, little is actually said about their specific ministry and how or why it was different than their fellow church officials.

Fast forward again to the middle ages and we find some of the first full records of the ministry of Deacons in the Western (read, Roman Catholic) church. Here deacons are among and relatively near the top of the several orders of ordained ministers and have responsibility for certain roles within the weekly service of the Church, like reading the Gospel and dividing the bread for communion, and other responsibilities within the community, like seeing to the needs of the poor. Because the orders of ministry in the middle ages were generally thought of as a hierarchy, being a deacon was usually understood to be a way-point on the way to being a priest or bishop. Though not fully honest to the true nature of the work, this understanding continues to be memorialized in many liturgical traditions (Episcopal and contemporary Roman Catholic) where future priests continue to serve for a period of time before being ordained to the priesthood.

Beginning with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and continuing almost to the current day, the denominational church has almost continually reconsidered both its organization and its ministry structure. Interestingly, though the notion of Deacon as junior-priest very quickly fell out of favor in traditions that were against the whole notion of having priests at all, whenever the church has needed a name for a group of ministers or a new ministerial initiative, “deacon” is frequently at the top of the list.

Sure, deacons in something like their middle-ages role still exist, though the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches have done a lot in recent years to recapture the notion of Deacon as a permanent and separate order of ministry. But, think, with me what an appropriate title for one of the following should be? What should a Baptist Church call a committed member of the congregation charged with helping the Pastor in organizing the work (rather than the finances) of the church? Right, a deacon. And how about a more liturgical tradition struggling to figure out how to incorporate women or married people into a model of ministry that is only for men or single people? You got it, Deacon, or even Deaconess.

There are probably more examples beyond these couple. And I certainly don’t mean, by my playful tone, to suggest that any of the above definitions are more or less valid or valuable than any other. They are all, simply, different, which makes the original question of “what is a Deacon,” more nuanced that it might seem. Suffice it say, therefore, that the best answer is probably to “ask a Deacon.” One thing I know about deacons of every stripe is that they are committed, kind, caring and proud of their contribution to the church. They will certainly be glad to share what they know.

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